This week I asked four Canadian poets what advice they’d give young poets setting out in their craft and sullen art. Patrick Lane, Marilyn Bowering, Jason Guriel and Gary Geddes each had different takes on what it takes to craft a really fine poem.
Patrick Lane on daily practice
There are no hard and fast rules to the writing of a fine poem. There are no particular strategies unless the writer chooses to impose a structure such as the villanelle or sonnet offers, a pot to pour water into, a shape to hold words in place. There are choices, but for practice the good writer imposes them to learn how a poem is made: the short line of three to four words, the line of six or seven syllables, an insistence on end-stopped lines, the choosing of enjambed lines, and on and on. The writer chooses one or more of these in order to discipline himself.
In my writing retreats I talk about the need for what I call piano exercises. I tell the writers the story of the average piano teacher who begins to practice on her instrument when she is four or five years old and goes on with this daily practice for the next twenty years. When she is twenty-five years old she begins to teach children how to play the piano. She does this as an interpreter of other individual’s work. Thus far she or he has never composed an original piece of music.
The beginning poet begins with original work and largely ignores the work of the masters beyond the occasional cursory readings. I offer this as one of many practices: Let the poet begin each day by copying a master poem by Auden or Williams, MacEwen or Boland. Write the poem out slowly by hand with a pen and then type them out slowly, pausing a brief moment at the end of each line before going on. The traditional teaching of painting asked that young painters copy the works of the masters in order to learn the nuances of a single brush stroke, the movement of tinted water left by a moving brush.
I have stood in the Louvre in Paris and watched a young man struggle to get the skin tone on a dancer in a painting by Degas. So, too, the poet. Let the poet feel her or his way into a poem! It is one practice that can arise from the intense reading of great poems. Such daily work creates a second nature in the writer. Spend an hour a day for three months with Rachel Carson, Robert Hass, or Charles Simic, Ezra Pound or William Butler Yeats, Lorna Crozier or Tim Lilburn. We learn to write through the complex practice of reading ourselves through the templates of the masters to the blank page of our own poem.
Marilyn Bowering on formal study
I’ve noticed several changes in young poets in the last few years that have made me reconsider what I’d advise them. The most important is that all of us are accumulating a deep layer of language refuse from all the ‘noise’ in the air, and that it can take time and continuous gentle effort to work through this layer to find interesting words. Patient digging is required. Many drafts may be needed and this is often news to young poets.
Often the sincerity and depth of a potential poem will be evident in its shape and its effect on the young poet’s contemporaries (who have similar struggles) long before words with a ring of truth to them are present. Some young poets, for instance, can’t identify clichés because they don’t know there are alternatives. They need to have experiences that teach them to recognize such words. The remedies are obvious (e.g. reading poetry; practice editing poetry)—but the ‘poetry’ that matters to many beginners is in music, not on the written page.
One way to make the bridge from music to page is by recognizing that the ears of many young poets are not tuned to iambic metre but to the trochee. (Listen to contemporary independent songs and you should catch some of this.) This means that making links to formal poetry—which is essential at some point—is best done through those forms that are built with a strong initial stress and not through what (habitually) is thought of as the ‘more natural’ metres –those that rely on initial unstressed sounds . I find, for instance, that young poets can write Sapphics; and that they are comfortable with forms that use refrains (e.g. the rondeau).
The positive aspect of these changes is that these young poets are returning poetry to a musicality and memorability that had been neglected. It is important to say that if formal study is begun too soon young poets can find their trouble with finding words and meaningful thought patterns increasing, rather than decreasing. At the right point—which is once the poet has a reasonably secure sense of the ring of true words (words that actually match their intentions) in a line-- some formal study can help (paradoxically) with breaking limiting patterns. I’ve seen some really exciting new work come about this way.
I’m interested, at the moment, in the way in which formal study can also help with deepening content: briefly, I’d say that too many poets use formal verse as a way to exercise puzzle-muscle, and that there can be much more to it when the poet is alert to the implicit content of the form. Young poets, with their different ears, different handicaps and strengths, have the potential to regenerate contemporary poetry if we will help them by paying close attention to what it ‘is’ they are doing, as well as to what they are not.
Jason Guriel on metaphor
A good metaphor depends on a connection between tenor and vehicle that’s surprising (we didn’t anticipate it) but also logical (we could’ve anticipated it—if we’d had the poet’s vision). When a poet equates something vague, like the night, to something spectacularly specific and showy like
with six banderillas in its flank, a mad
wolverine caught in the corner and harassed
a dog stumbling in the last moments of rabies
we are bored because there was never a possibility for us to have come up with the bull, the wolverine, the dog. (The night is simply not like these things.) But when a different poet with better vision describes a “dark doorway” (a something with actual dimensions) as the “wall’s yawn,” we find ourselves awed because we could’ve come up with the connection!—but didn’t. Poets outside Elizabethan England should try to avoid vague tenors. Rather, they should pick something concrete, which the reader has seen a thousand times, and make her see it anew, with a surprising but logical comparison. Of course, this presumes the poet’s ability to see things anew in the first place.
Gary Geddes on lineation
After all these years of working with developing writers, as a teacher, publisher and editor, I should have some useful advice to give. Yet I find myself not wanting to lay on anyone else the preoccupations that have driven me and shaped my own writing. After all, the few successes and many failures of my poetic career don’t need repeating. I thought I knew something about the poetic line many years ago, that it ought to have something in it for the ear, eye and mind; in fact, I often chided Al Purdy for what I called his throwaway lines, the product of chopping a reasonable long line into three or more phrases. I still have a strong resistance to the throwaway and the phrasally- determined line, but I recognize that lining and line-breaks are a very subjective matter.
Early on, I favoured the short line of six or less syllables, so my Rivers Inlet poems look like stacked totem poles or the malnourished “Walking Man” sculpture by Giacometti. I think this reflected not only a strong Imagist influence, but also a basic uncertainty and unease in what I was doing. Short lines also helped a young poet stretch out rather skimpy materials by taking up more space on the page. For a while, it seemed that the breath of modern poetry came mainly in short pants. However, the longer line became quite attractive to me when I saw how useful and engaging it was in the work of A.M. Klein and Irving Layton, capable of the kind of luxurious sweep you can’t always achieve in nervous Creeleyesque short lines. The longer line worked well for me in “Sandra Lee Scheuer” and The Terracotta Army, where I had issues and historical events that needed to be examined, the kind of thing Wallace Stevens called the “pressure of the real.”
Breaking the line seemed to suffer a lack of authority or restraints. After all, the sprawl of free-verse had left many of us running off at the mouth or the typewriter and dependent on typographical gymnastics, a poem’s lining having less to do with the ear than the eye. Frost described the writing of free verse as playing tennis without a net; and Eliot insisted that no verse is free for the poet who wants to do a good job. I wanted the ‘scoring’ of my poems to be allied with the content; or the content to discover itself as the form was revealed. So I began to experiment with different kinds of enjambment, often breaking the line between an adjective and the noun it modified, on the assumption that this created more torque, a sort of forward thrust that would not be there if modifier and noun completed the line. I still favour this method, although some of my favourite poets pay no attention to this practice and seem to have survived to write brilliant poems.
Dennis Cooley has some good, wise and crazy things to say about line-breaks in one of his essays, which I recommend that you check out. So, too, James Scully in Line Break: Poetry and Social Practice and Phyllis Webb, in an essay written for 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics. I find I am more concerned with stanza-breaks in the poems I’m writing now, offering a visual impression of uniformity, within which I can exercise a lot of freedom in terms of the length and shape of utterances, whether sentences or fragments. Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” uses triplets in the same way, giving her narrative the appearance of form, while allowing her to be outrageously casual in terms of line-lengths. I’ve noticed, these days, that I am most comfortable with a mouthful of syllables in a line, ranging from seven to twelve, the decasyllabic line predominating. Long in the tooth and long-winded, you might say. When you’re working with persona and narrative, the longer line can be a welcome companion.
So, to answer your question, to a young poet I’d say: Pay no attention to rules, just take a close look at how your favourite poems by other writers manage their line-breaks. And keep breaking the line differently to see what feels best. Nothing’s worse than a limp poem that has neither syntactical backbone nor linear authority and can’t be distinguished from chopped prose. Alas, most of us, yours truly included, have perpetuated too many of the latter. If you can’t figure out how best to break the line, it’s probably an indication that you need to make some changes in terms of word-choice, syntax and patterns of stress.
Marilyn Bowering’s latest book of poems Soul Mouth (Exile Editions) comes out this Fall. This year, she also had poems published in Exile and The New Quarterly.
Jason Guriel’s new book, The Pigheaded Soul: Essays on Poetry and Culture, will be published by The Porcupine’s Quill in 2013. His work is forthcoming in Poetry, PN Review, The Walrus, Parnassus, and Taddle Creek. He lives in Toronto.
Patrick Lane has authored more than twenty books of poetry and is past winner of the Governor General's Award for Poetry. The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane (Hardback; $44.95) was released this year.
Gary Geddes is author of numerous anthologies, notably his widely read Fifteen Canadian Poets and 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics. His two most recent books are Swimming Ginger (poems, Goose Lane, 2009) and Drink the Bitter Root: A writer's search for justice and redemption in Africa (non-fiction, Douglas & McIntyre, 2011